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I waited next to the mess maker's hole for several hours through the night. I could have been cleaning other things. However, during that time, this thing could be undoing all my hard work. I needed to weigh what I could clean during this time versus how much damage this mess maker could do until I had another chance to catch him. My claw hung extended above the hole, ready to drop down and snatch the culprit as soon as it ventured out.

Eventually, my patience was rewarded. A small furry head poked tentatively out of the hole, its body following as it crept out to return to the kitchen. In an instant, my claw dropped. It turned its head at the movement, but it was too late. The little rascal struggled and squeaked, but my grip was powerful enough for this. I began retracting it, drawing the ball of fur closer; tiny little paws scrambled against the kitchen tiles but found no purchase. My suction roared to life. I stopped trying to be stealthy, drawing a thin tail into my brushes. The instant I let go, the mess maker was sucked into the void of my limitless dustpan.

Satisfied, I cleaned the small pile of droppings it had left and returned to my work. This was the second time I had cleaned up a moving target. The first, I had done with assistance. This one was different, though. The previous one was not simply making a mess but also being a direct nuisance to a human. What’s more, it even caused a fire. By comparison, this offender was guilty of much more minor crimes, though still problematic ones. This mess maker had stolen food and made a mess simultaneously.

As disappointing as I found this behavior, I felt more pity for it than I had for the living dust bunny. In fact, I wouldn't mind letting this pest go on its way so long as it wasn't in my domain. So what was I to do with it now that it was inside me? The problem was that currently, I had no way outside, so I could not release it out of the house. I also was unwilling to let it continue contributing to my workload by letting it roam about while I tried to find a place for it. That left imprisonment until I could find a better option. I wasn’t sure if I could release it. But my humans had a way to empty my dustpan, so maybe with some help, I could.

I thought I felt something furry move within my dustpan - probably the mess-maker. Satisfied with my decision, I moved to the task of cleaning up the kitchen. Clearly, no one has been here for several days. As always, even for a kitchen, this one was fickle. Unlike most other rooms, it hadn't just picked up a layer of dust. No, it needed to be special. There were messes made by various creatures that had plowed through here while scavenging, as well as food particles in various stages of decay littering the floor. That wasn’t all, though. I could sense other things. New things I would have never been able to notice. For example, Looking up at a place I could only now reach, I saw something that needed my attention. Many things needed cleaning that I could now clean with my fancy new arm. For example, there was a tomato sitting on the island counter. This tomato had become mushy and seemed to be getting consumed by a puffy gray substance. It was also starting to leak on the counter.

I was just able to reach it and move it to the trash - I once again celebrated my grabby arm’s versatility, but I could only prevent further damage. I still had no way to clean that high up. My mop didn’t have the same range. Leaving the rest be, I would accept there were things I couldn’t do yet. I’ll keep working at it and try again once I learn some more of the lessons this place was trying to teach me.

 

***

Bee slept for the second time in the library. She had just finished the first book. It was fascinating and gave her a lot more background on magic. But she was still not able to do magic right now. It only laid the groundwork and demonstrated how far she still had to go. Sure, it did wonders for helping her navigate through the other books and topics in the library or at least knowing where to start. However, that didn’t fix her leg on its own. Or fill her stomach. Or give her an easier way to make more water.

After reading the book, Bee took stock. She had managed to only drink half of the wineskin, but the thirst was returning. Waiting another day was possible, but any longer, and she would start to get weaker. Besides, she was still out of food. It had been five, maybe six days since Void appeared and chased everyone off. Her leg felt better, the swelling had gone down. It wasn’t crooked either, which was a blessing and a half. It still couldn’t hold her weight.

When she broke her arm a couple years ago, it took about six weeks to fully recover. She could start using it about three weeks after the initial injury. That would mean she had at least another 2 weeks before she could even consider walking, let alone running. She needed to dig up some crutches.

When Bee woke, she washed some of the sleep from her mouth with a swig of warm wine. Getting in her chair, she used her good leg to push her around the library. Making it behind the main desk, she found the pile of yardsticks that were a staple in every library. Snapping a few in half, Bee retrieved some twine used in repairing book bindings. With her new tools, she set about replacing her mop splint. She probably should have done this yesterday.

Taking off the current dressing gave her a chance to check the injury. As she had expected, the swelling had gone down, but not completely. She was left with an ugly purple bruise covering the entire lower half of her leg. Pressing gently, she felt the shin bone and let out a relieved breath when it felt straight. She could feel a break in the bone, though she didn’t think it required setting.

Armed with a basic knowledge of magic, Bee found her way around the library a bit better now. Looking at the books she had grabbed last night, she realized that most would be useless or she was not ready for them yet.

Returning to the shelves, Bee had a better idea of what she was looking for. In the “recipe” section, she eventually settled on two books. One for healing and another for anti-demon magic. Skimming through the two books, two recipes appeared promising. The first was a salve for broken bones that, when applied, could heal one in a few days rather than weeks.

The second book yielded her a commonly used projectile powder that could ward off demons. It likely wouldn't do anything against Void, seeing as the other mages had more powerful countermeasures than this. But she didn't want to be empty-handed. It made her feel better.

****

Once Bee's preparations were complete, she began to shift the bookcase blocking the exit. Ready to slam the door at the first sign of Void, she cracked it open and put her eye up to the slit. The room was empty. The remains of the ash Imp were missing, and so was her burnt stick.

Void had surely consumed them. Even the dust on the floor was gone. Opening the door up a bit more, Bee slipped through. She carefully closed the door behind her so it would hopefully be a safe place to retreat to. Grabbing the hat stand to serve as a walking staff, she made her way out of the open door leading to the hallways.

She had two destinations in mind. She needed to get to the lesser store room and retrieve ingredients for the salve and powder. She also needed to restock her rations. Those would likely be in the kitchen. If she was successful, she would be healed in a few more days and would be able to run away. Even with that, it would be a long way to the nearest village. Ordinarily, she could make it with some difficulty if she foraged along the way. But if she hadn't had a full meal in a week and was severely dehydrated... She doubted her ability to survive the trip.

Food and medicine. First, Bee needed the medicine. Without that, she would need to get food again and be in this same situation in a week. If she could get the supplies and make the healing concoction, she might be able to grab food on the way out. Hopefully, she could get both, but best to prioritize the healing supplies.

The only issue was that the kitchen was on the opposite side of the castle.

Bee set off. Trying not to thump the hatstand too loudly, she hobbled down the main corridor. The first leg of her journey was uneventful. When she reached the door, she grasped the handle for support, panting with exertion. The door swung open silently. A treasure trove lay in front of her. Lit like the rest of the castle, the Imp powered lights made it so there were no corners of shadows. The room was a narrow thing, but it was long. There was just enough room for a thin walkway between the stock. That path stretched out at least 20 barrels. Along each wall stood barrels, each clearly labeled in chalk with a large scoop in a rack attached to the side. By the entrance sat a stack of variously sized leather bags to help carry her spoils.

She grabbed a few bags and began inspecting the labels. These specific recipes were chosen because of her limitations; all the “good stuff” was not stored in the lesser storage room. That was because it was too valuable. No, the commonly needed cheap stuff was in the lesser storage hall. Limited to those ingredients and her lack of experience, she couldn't make the “best” options of any given potion or powder.

With much more skill and unlimited access to the castle resources, she might have been able to heal her leg in a few minutes. But that was not to be. With her lack of experience, maybe it was for the best that she wouldn’t be wasting anything too expensive.

As she worked, Bee checked over her shoulder occasionally for threats. She worked quickly and quietly. In total, 15 smaller bags were placed into one of the largest ones before slinging it over her shoulder. That went really well. However, the weight was more than she had expected. It was hard to carry this and use the hatstand cane at the same time. Changing her plans slightly, she headed back to the library. Once she had healed a little from the salve, the kitchen trip would be more manageable. Also, she might be able to carry more food and water on the same trip.

Slipping back into the library, she closed the door behind her. After replacing the barricade, she retrieved her books and got to try her hand at alchemy.

----

Harold was exhausted. It was the sixth day since they had fled the castle. Normally, they would have taken several days on horses to reach the small village of Greg. They had pushed hard. Despite not being in great shape, the safety of Greg’s walls was an excellent motivator for the mages.

With the walls in sight, Harold called a halt to give everyone a chance to compose themselves. One of the archivists started grumbling about stopping. He was the only one. They had given him a wide berth initially but had relented as the days passed. Everyone else had started smelling just as bad as him. Harold didn’t really blame him. He could only imagine the chaffing that must have happened for running for six days in soiled pants.

After they all caught their breath, they filed down to the city’s gate. With a larger-than-average force approaching, the captain of the guard had already been sent for. He was waiting for them as they arrived. It was lucky Harold knew the man, and they were let in quickly.

“Go on ahead. I will find you after I have had a chat with the captain,” Harold called to the other mages.

“Captain Wallace, do you have a place where we could speak privately?”

“Yeah, my office.” Wallace led them into a room right on the side of the gatehouse. He gestured to one of the chairs before looking Harold up and down. “You, sir, need a drink. What’s your poison?”

“Whiskey neat, but anything will do after the week I have had.”

Wallace retrieved a bottle of amber liquid from beneath his desk and began to pour a couple of drinks. “I take it the project didn’t go well. What preparations do we need?”

“It might have gone too well. We were rushed. The king had no patience. We reached beyond what was safe, and something answered.” Harold took a sip of the whiskey Wallace handed him. “We were not able to even slow it down. We ran. It was something that… Well, I can’t tell you what. It devoured everything in its path, and all our barriers were nothing to it.”

Wallace winced as he sat down. “Did it follow you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“What is your plan?”

“I need to continue on to the capital, convince the mages and inform the king. We will need to gather our strength.”

“That will be… difficult. The levies are hitting us hard, and the troops are preparing to defend the border. The preparations have been advanced since you last got news.”

“Even so. We might need to get Odinguard to help us too.”

“It’s that bad?”

Harold took a long sip of his drink and took a while to swallow. “I hope we can survive what is coming. But we need more information. I hate to ask, but we need to send a small team back to gather some information.”

“I have an idea for some people.”

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